It was one of the best days of my life – no lie. I’m sure anyone who has visited Patara Elephant Farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand would agree.
As soon as we arrived at Patara I knew it was going to be special. All of the staff members were dressed in traditional Karen clothing. There was no mistaking their style of weaving. Mark and I spent 3 months with the Karen people last year. The Karen are a persecuted minority group living on the border of Burma and Thailand – many in refugee camps waiting to be processed by the UN. We had learned some Karen words and common courtesies; like when you receive something you lift your free hand into the inner side of your elbow. Throughout the day I did my best to use the words that I remembered. The staff were completely shocked when we spoke Karen. At the end of the day I was gifted with an incredibly special gift. One of the guides came privately to my husband and gave him something to give to me. It was a hair from the tail of an elephant that they twisted into a ring. I felt so privileged. He said that his staff wanted to give me this as a gift because I could speak Karen and as a thank you for helping their people. We hadn’t spoken to them about the work that we did with the Karen, but I guess it was a safe assumption to make.
Patara Elephant Farm is unlike any other elephant farm in Thailand. This is the only place in Thailand where the number of elephants outnumber the daily number of tourist. I can’t remember the exact figure, but there were a number of years where they didn’t have tourist, but because of the need for funds to run the place, they opened it up to paying visitors.
If you’re looking for a place to visit elephants in Thailand you might be tempted to go see an entertaining show as they look innocent enough. We learned that elephants damage their legs from performing (i.e. playing soccer, standing on their back legs, etc). So what’s so different about Patara? Well definitely no performing – just helping and being involved in the daily life of the elephants.
When we first arrived we were giving a very good brief on the history of Patara and how it works. Our guide then matched us based on our personalities with our elephants which we would be with for the entire day. I was paired Mairwundee (see below) – because she’s a decision maker (I’ll take that as a compliment thank you).
We then learned how to look for signs that the elephants were healthy and how to clean them. There are some major signs to know whether an elephant is healthy or not. One that I’ll share now is checking their poop. This is a “hands-on” experience and if you’re the one that booked the day then you’re the one that is made to handle the poo (yes, that was me, Mrs Organised Wife). First, I had to give the poo a squeeze. When liquid came out this was as sign that they were hydrated. You also needed to smell it – if it smells like hay then that’s also a good sign. Finally, we had to rub the fibres between our fingers. If the plants they had eated had broken down, individual fibres would fall to the ground (as opposed to whole leaves). It might sound gross, but I personally would handle elephant poo over human poo any day because it looks just like grass having been chopped in a blender (helps that they’re 100% vegetarian too). (Also, just want to add that their poo looks different to the elephants poo I saw in Africa. They looked like giant piles of pudding gone off – just in case you had visuals of me arm deep in a sticky brown mess. Eww gross.. time to move on.)
After this we learned how to clean the elephants. The poor elephants are constantly being attacked by insects that want their juicy blood. It’s really important to make sure the elephants are cleaned everywhere incase any of there insects lay eggs into their skin or between their folds. Because of this the elephants also cover themselves in mud to protect themselves, so cleaning them is quite a physical job. We started by brushing the dry mud off with a bunch of twigs with leaves, then we took them down to the river where we scrubbed them clean. Being in the water with the elephants was so unique and special. I felt as though I was an eco warrior for the day helping to preserve these animals which are being depopulated at an alarming rate in Thailand.
Next we were taught three ways of mounting and dismounting the elephants. The Karen were graceful and swift, but us, let’s just say… we were not.
(The photos above were taken by a Patara staff member. At the end of the day they send you home with a disc full of photos and a disc with video footage. You can also take your own camera as there are plenty of photo opportunities and they move your belongings to the different places you stop over the day.)
We started one of our walks riding bare back on the elephant’s neck – not on a giant contraption that hold three adults on their back (yes I’m digging at other tourist places). We learned some basic commands, but I figured Mairwundee was a decision maker so I let her set the pace and let her graze when she wanted to. Plus each elephant came with a trainer who walked beside us so I felt fine.
After our first walk we came to some fields where we would eat lunch. We came across a mother and baby playing in the water. After we ate we were able to get closer to the baby. This baby elephant was simply hilarious. It played around like a fun toddler who had just woken up from a good nap. This cutie pie would dart around and do the funniest things (as seen below trying to do a handstand!). At one stage it would plomp itself down, jump up (as much as an elephant could do that), and repeated that around half a dozen times – needless to say we were all humoured and wanted to take it home.
One thing we were told was that elephants are in many ways are like humans. They live to about the same age and act the same way at the same ages. So a 17 year old elephant is going to act like a 17 year old human. This is no myth. One visitor had a 17 year old male who was very disobedient on the walks and wanted to eat everything in sight.
The end of the day was the only part we didn’t have someone from the park taking photos and I didn’t feel comfortable taking mine with me on the elephant so I sadly have no photos. But this by far was my most favourite. I can honestly say it was like a taste of heaven. We walked along a stream that divided their land and some rice fields. There were people harvesting the rice that were only too happy to give a friendly wave. The locals believe it brings you good luck to ride an elephant. We then went into the stream – which is where the elephant’s nails would be naturally filed. There were butterflies and dragonflies dancing and darting around. There were a set of the most brillant blue butterflies that flew in perfect circles perfectly opposite each other as though they were trying to make a whirlwind in the air. We walked and the elephants would graze – some more than others. Once I turned around to look at Mark behind me and his elephant had taken a huge branch off a tree and refused to let it go. I had to laugh as the branch as about the size of Mark.
Why is this program so good? They have never had an elephant die on them. The elephants don’t get depressed because they socialise with other elephants. If you ever hear of an elephant dying from digestion problems, they have most likely died from depression. When an elephant gets depressed, their digestive system stops working, and if they don’t pass food in three days the gas inside them builds up so much they die. They also exercise daily. This means their nails are naturally filed. So if you ever hear of an elephant dying from a foot infection, it could safely be assumed they died from lack of exercise. Without exercise their nails grow too long and curl underneath their foot increasing the chance of an infection. Patara have a wholesome breeding program. It’s not just the multiplying of the elephants which is the important thing, but that first time pregnant elephants get to spend time with an elephant who has already given birth – this is called their “partner”. She will help the first time mummy give birth because she has experience.
Honestly, how beautiful are these creatures?
For me, visiting Patara is a bucket list experience. If you love animals, and want to have a more intimate and up close experience with a creature you normally only see at a distance you will love your visit here.
Visit their website here.
Tour I went on here.
Facebook page here.